As a recovering suburbanite, strip malls make me anxious. They remind me of my childhood, a time when a McDonald's hamburger was a tasty, uncomplicated object. A time before Chris Ellis - a McDonald's employee who makes only $7.60 an hour - showed me the fryer burns running up and down his arm in the backseat of a labor organizer's car.
It's the day before Halloween and Chris, myself, and thirty others are headed to the suburb of Greensburg, PA. Cruising around Greengate Centre Circle, the McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Verizon stores are mere foreplay leading up to the Walmart Supercenter. This monolithic box represents our nation's largest employer, but Chris doesn't seem daunted.
"We want all workers to grow strong together," Chris says. "Their fight is our fight."
Tristean Weaver paces the parking lot of a nearby Panera Bread. She's a 21-year-old employee of Walmart's automotive department who has worked at the Greensburg store for two years. Her hands shake as she thumbs through a manila folder.
"She's brave. What she's doing, most people have not been able to do," says Elaine Kuhar, an organizer with the OurWalmart organization. "She wants to personally deliver the petition to her own manager."
Tristean is one of thousands of OurWalmart members across the nation risking retaliation by fighting for $15 an hour, full-time hours, and respect for workers. Despite working full time, it's a struggle for Tristean to afford the basics such as rent, electric, and groceries. While past Walmart CEOs have made the equivalent of $16,826.92 an hour, Tristean only makes $8.60.
"In my opinion, customers think that we're stupid, that we're not educated, that we're just doing this because we're lazy," Tristean says. "I mean, they don't understand that I'm a human just like you."
Tristean, Chris, and fellow protesters march around the side of the building. A customer shouts with venom "Get a job" as he walks towards the store. I hear an organizer inform the customer that the rally is, in fact, to support the people working at Walmart. The man pauses, then apologizes.
Looking at the disgruntled customer, I'm reminded of my own childhood naiveté. I'm sitting in front of the TV with my family on Thanksgiving. A jingle heralds the arrival of "Smiley" the lovable mascot. "Smiley" turns into a buzz saw, slashing prices and delighting customers and employees alike, but the real mascot of Walmart commercials stretching back to 1998 is the obsequious employee. Walmart has so often promoted the image of the happy associate that, to many suburbanites, the sight of an associate speaking out seems against nature.
"We're not asking people to boycott Walmart on Black Friday," says Elaine Kuhar, the OurWalmart organizer. "We just want people to respect the workers and recognize that income inequality in this country is affecting everyone."
Tristean, Chris, and Elaine sound upbeat about the impending Black Friday actions. They want the actions to be inclusive, a celebration of workers nationwide. On one side of Walmart's sliding doors, suburbanites will line up to buy discounted Xboxes, HDTVs, and Keurig Coffeemakers. On the other side, our country's hardworking associates will rally for your respect and the ability to survive.